Many of us are still experiencing stress and anxiety as we begin returning to normal activities.
The small stresses and big traumas of COVID-19 and the past year are leading to an increase in PTSD.
Seeking treatment for PTSD (or any mental health issue) can help you feel more in control, sooner.
[5 MIN READ]
Is it safe to go in public without a mask now that I’m vaccinated?
How many people are vaccinated where I live?
Should I attend a dinner party at my neighbor’s house?
What activities can I resume?
Will my company require me to return to the office?
When is it safe to travel again?
When will vaccines be available to my kids who are under age 12?
Navigating the past 12+ months has been stressful for many (if not all of us). But we came together by doing our part – staying home, wearing a mask and working diligently to slow the spread of COVID-19.
What kept us hopeful during some of those early unsettling and uncertain days was looking forward to the moment we could “get back to normal.” Turns out, there’s no clear finish line.
While there is much to celebrate – there is still a lot of stress and anxiety. And that’s taking a toll on our mental health.
While there is much to celebrate – restrictions have eased up in many communities, vaccines are more widely available, and we’re finally able to wrap our arms around loved ones – there is still a lot of stress and anxiety. And that’s taking a toll on our mental health.
“We have all been dealing with a heightened emergency response over that past year,” states Susanne Weber, M.D., psychiatrist at Swedish. “That wears down our mental state. It wears our body down physically, too.”
The pandemic and PTSD
Experts expect those feelings to persist as we ease back into different forms of daily living. You may be battling anxiety, depression, chronic stress disorders or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – something we often only attribute to extremely traumatic or sudden events.
Dr. Weber explains that PTSD isn’t just a condition that war veterans experience.
“The main criterion of diagnosing PTSD is directly experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event,” she says. “That trauma may be what we refer to as a big “T” trauma – like a threat to your life, sexual assault or an unexpected death, injury or illness of a loved one.
The main criterion of diagnosing PTSD is directly experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD can also be triggered by living through a period of time that brings cumulative stress.
“Post-traumatic stress symptoms can also be triggered by living through a period of time that brings cumulative stress – say fearing you’ll get COVID-19 every time you go to a grocery store or worrying about an elderly parent every time they sneeze, sniffle or cough.”
So, how do you know if you have PTSD or a similar condition? The first step is understanding what, exactly, PTSD is.
Fight, flight or freeze: PTSD’s calling cards
Our bodies and minds are amazing: Signs of illness tell us something’s wrong and let us know when to seek treatment. Fear can even keep us out of harm’s way. But living through a traumatic experience can cause those reactions to go a little haywire.
Typically, when we experience stress or trauma our body goes into high alert. Our instinct will be fight, flight or freeze.
“Typically, when we experience stress or trauma our body goes into high alert. Our instinct will be fight, flight or freeze,” Dr. Weber says.
During the pandemic, that could have looked like:
Pouring all your energy into making masks for those in need (fight)
Heading to your childhood home or out of a COVID-19 hot spot (flight)
Staying at home, worried to go anywhere (freeze)
While, individually, each of these responses can be considered healthy – and likely made an impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19 – the issue becomes when the immediate reaction to fight, flight or freeze lingers even after the danger has passed.
PTSD or similar disorders are diagnosed if you’re still experiencing that sense of high alert and high response at least two months after the danger has passed
“Typically, PTSD or similar disorders are diagnosed if you’re still experiencing that sense of high alert and high response at least two months after the danger has passed,” states Dr. Weber.
The challenge with COVID-19 is that it can be difficult to tell when the danger has subsided.
“It’s natural to have some hesitancy as major (and not so major) guidelines change,” reassures Dr. Weber. “But, if that fear and uncertainty is keeping you from living your life and you are constantly feeling anxious, stressed or trapped in your house, I encourage you to talk to a trained professional.”
Finding hope, treating PTSD
The first step in feeling better is breaking out of isolation, encourages Dr. Weber.
“PTSD is a disorder that can really hold an individual back for years and even decades,” she says. “We have treatments that are very effective. The sooner you start treatments that work, the sooner you can get back to living your life with a better sense of control and ease.”
The sooner you start treatments that work, the sooner you can get back to living your life with a better sense of control and ease.
Those treatments, Dr. Weber shares, can vary depending on where someone is at emotionally and where they want to go. Your doctor will work closely with you to develop the plan that’s right for you. It may include:
- Therapy to help your body learn and better respond to what is, and isn’t, a dangerous situation. Your therapy may either be trauma-based, or if you don’t feel comfortable focusing on the trauma, general talk-based therapy.
- Antidepressants (specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) can increase the levels of serotonin, which helps regulate mood and emotions.
- Blood pressure medication, such as prazosin and clonidine, can also help ease your body’s response to the stress of being on "high alert."
Delight in a new season
Just as we’re about to enter a new season with sunnier skies and warmer temps, we’re also entering a new season in the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, we hope to be able to enjoy many of the activities we had to skip last year. Whether that’s gathering with family and friends for a backyard barbeque or finally packing up the car and heading on a much deserved (and long awaited) vacation, remember there are ways to safely and responsibly ease back into “normal” days.
If you find yourself feeling frozen, drenched in fear or unable to face new experiences, know that help can be found.
And if you find yourself feeling frozen, drenched in fear or unable to face new experiences, know that help can be found. Together, we’ll help you find your way back to enjoying all life has to offer.
Find a doctor
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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